On Jordan and Rodman, Again

Posted on December 4, 2006 by


My rule for The Wages of Wins Journal is one post, and only one post, per day. This schedule allows me to keep my focus on my academic research (at least, that is the general idea). Today, though, there is more than one topic I want to discuss. The list of potential topics includes

  • Dan Shanoff’s post last week entitled “Is Craig Smith the NBA’s Best Rookie?” Shanoff’s post reports some analysis I did at his request, and I would certainly like to comment more on who the top rookies are so far this year.
  • The New York Knicks have played about 25% the NBA season and it increasingly appears that Larry Brown was not the entire problem in the Big Apple. Still, it does look like Isiah has a knack for picking role players. Both stories would be interesting to explore in more detail.
  • And then there is the BCS. Florida has leapfrogged Michigan and will now play Ohio State in college football’s championship game. Certainly I have some thoughts on this issue.

All of these topics are worthy of a Monday post, but I wish to write something that reveals I am in touch with my inner (and very immature) child.

When The Wages of Wins was first reviewed by Malcolm Gladwell, people – like Matthew Yglesias – investigated my research and discovered a paper I published in 1999 which indicated that Dennis Rodman was “better” than Michael Jordan. From this Yglesias and others concluded that our book argued that Rodman is better than Jordan.

To this I responded that our book did not make this argument. In fact, our book argued that Jordan might be the best player to ever play the game.

Yglesias soon posted that he was mistaken, and indeed our book did say what I claimed.
King Kaufman, though, claimed that we are wrong. Our book did say Rodman was better than Jordan.

To that I said: “Did Not.”

To which Kaufman replied last week: “Did To.”

And now it is my turn. I could leave this at “Did Not.” Of course, what would be the fun in that? No, I think I will take just a bit of time to examine what King Kaufman is saying and how I think this differs from the story we tell in The Wages of Wins.

Let’s start with what Kaufman said last week in a column at Salon.com.

1. Despite the fact he devoted a substantial part of his column to a discussion of the recent comments John Hollinger and I have made about measuring productivity in the NBA, and despite his previous comments on The Wages of Wins, Kaufman claims he is definitely not taking part in any discussion of how to measure player performance in the NBA.

2. Although he is staying out of this, he went back to his point that our work does indicate that Dennis Rodman was a more productive basketball player than Michael Jordan. In fact, he indicates that I am disingenuous for contradicting him on this point.

3. And he finishes his discussion by arguing that any model that claims Rodman is better than Jordan is flawed.

Reading over these points, it is hard to see that Kaufman is simply a neutral observer. Of course he might still say that he is. To which I might reply: “Are Not.” And then he would say “Am To.” And all this can be a subject of a future post.

But for here it really doesn’t matter much if Kaufman is taking sides or is actually a genuine Switzerland in this debate. What might matter is whether or not I know what we said in The Wages of Wins.

This is the quote Kaufman takes from page 144 of our book. “Per 48 minutes played, Rodman’s productivity even eclipsed Jordan. Rodman’s WP48 of .0.415 was four times the production offered by an average player in the NBA, and even surpassed the 0.386 WP48 posted by Jordan.”

If Kaufman were to read the very next line he would see: Of course when one looks at standard deviations about the average, Jordan was still more productive than Rodman.

Okay, what does that mean?

If one looks back on page 140 of our book there is a section entitled “The Jordan Legend.” In this section we make the argument that MJ might be the greatest player to ever play the game.

Here is an excerpt from this section, with the key points in bold:

Jordan entered the league in 1984 and retired a third and final time – at least as of this writing it is the final time – in 2003. Over this time period Jordan played in fifteen seasons, playing his last season when he was forty years old. How does Jordan’s performance across all these years compare to what we have seen thus far from Kevin Garnett? As we noted, in Garnett’s first nine seasons his WP48 was 0.326. Now we must remember that Garnett began his career when he was nineteen and at the conclusion of the 04-05 campaign he was only 29 years old. So we are only looking at Garnett in his prime, while we are considering both MJ’s prime years and also his time as the very elderly statesmen of the Washington Wizards. Surprisingly, MJ’s WP48 across this entire career bested Garnett in his prime. When Jordan retired in 2003 his career WP48 stood at 0.346.

Now what if we only considered MJ’s seasons before his first retirement? Well, in Garnett’s first ten seasons he produced 200 wins. Jordan was hurt for much of his second season, and he retired the first time after only nine years. Yet despite playing only a bit more than eight seasons, Jordan produced 219 wins before giving baseball a try. Jordan’s WP48 across these years was an amazing 0.406. What does that mean? With a bit of math we can see that a team of average players plus Jordan would win 61 games.

…. Jordan’s career productivity is even more impressive when we note that he was a shooting guard. It is important to recognize that it is harder for a guard to perform well beyond the average player at his position. Relative to front court players, the supply of quality guards is higher. Therefore, the top front court players are likely to perform further from the average at their position, and consequently accumulate more wins than a top guard. This can be clearly seen in 1995-96, when Jordan produced nearly 25 wins. This lofty total was eclipsed by David Robinson, a center for the San Antonio Spurs who produced 28 victories.

When we examine how many standard deviations each player is above the average at his position, we have evidence that Jordan had the better season. Robinson’s WP48 of 0.449 was 2.6 standard deviations above the average center. Jordan posted a WP48 of 0.386, but given that shooting guards have a relatively small variation in performance, MJ was actually 3.2 standard deviations better than the average player at his position. When we take into account the realities of NBA production, Jordan’s performance at guard is all the more incredible.

What does all this mean? One step in calculating Wins Produced is to compare a player’s performance relative to the average at his position. Because there is a “Short Supply of Tall People” (and I still like that phrase), frontcourt players consist of productive players – like Shaq, Robinson, and Rodman – and players that are quite unproductive (insert name of big stiff here). Hence a quality frontcourt player can produce at a level far above the average at his position. In contrast, guards tend to be shorter, so the supply of these players is much larger. Consequently Jordan was being compared to a population of players with relatively more talented athletes, and hence it was harder for Jordan to perform far above the average at his position. In essence, baseball fans might remember that this is the same phenomenon Stephen Jay Gould identified in his discussion of the decline of the 0.400 hitter in baseball.

To combat how the supply of talent would impact a player’s relative value, we suggested that one could look at how many standard deviations a player performed above the average at his position. And when we take that step, Jordan looks better than Robinson or Rodman. In other words, although in terms of Wins Produced or WP48 Robinson or Rodman might eclipse Jordan in a given year, we still find MJ to be the best when we consider the supply of talent each played faced at his position.

Of course, you might not like that argument. You might want to focus on just Wins Produced. And when we do that, we can still say Jordan was better than Rodman. Although Rodman did exceed Jordan’s productivity in some years, if we look at the each player’s career we see that Jordan’s Wins Produced far exceeded that which was offered by Rodman.

And that is the story we tell in The Wages of Wins. Jordan is probably the best player to ever play the game. We do consider the merits of Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain. And although we cannot say that Jordan was clearly better than Magic or Wilt, I feel pretty comfortable saying that Jordan was more productive than Rodman.

That being said, our work does indeed indicate that Rodman was a very productive player. And I suspect that Kaufman is not going to like that argument, especially since he has said he does not believe that Rodman really was all that good.

But does Kaufman’s belief about the relative merits of Rodman invalidate the approach we offer in The Wages of Wins? As I have argued previously, whether or not a model conforms to prior beliefs is not relevant. Academic investigations do not proceed from conclusion back to evidence. Investigations proceed from evidence to conclusion. When you only consider prior beliefs in evaluating the investigation you are actually getting it backwards. And this is what Kaufman does when he dismisses the Wins Produced approach.

Wow, this is one long post. This is what happens when your inner child is allowed to talk. If Kaufman does come back and says “Did To” I will try and muzzle myself and just say “Did Not.”

– DJ